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Rebel split overshadows elections in Aceh BANDA ACEH - Muhammad Nasir has more than earned the right to cast a vote in the upcoming historic elections in Indonesia's strife-torn Aceh province. Only 18 months ago, the 39-year-old was languishing in jail, a political prisoner from the armed Free Aceh Movement (GAM), which had waged a guerrilla war against the Indonesian government since 1976.

But the devastating 2004 Asian tsunami tore open the province both physically and politically, leading to a peace settlement less than eight months later and clearing the way for first-ever direct elections on December 11, in which former rebels will stand as independent candidates for governor, district chiefs and mayors.

The only problem for loyal foot soldiers like Nasir is deciding whom to vote for. GAM is in the midst of a painful transition from guerrilla force to political organisation, and a nasty rift opened last summer between the movement's old guard civilian leadership based in Sweden and younger military commanders who fought the Indonesian army for years.

The GAM civilian leadership has endorsed Acehnese intellectual Humam Hamid and ex-rebel Hasbi Abdullah for governor and vice governor, while former guerrilla commanders are backing a rival ticket of Irwandi Yusuf and Muhammed Nazar. Publicly, the movement claims it is neutral, but the infighting has sown confusion among GAM's supporters and could jeopardise its chances of winning the various seats up for grabs.

"The reaction against autocratic decision-making is understandable but it raises the question whether GAM will be able to hold together as a political block," according to an analysis by the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank. Nasir, who now runs a modest shop making traditional peci hats, hasn't decided which GAM ticket to support, but he definitely will not vote for the other candidates: pro-Jakarta politicians and a retired army general whom he dismisses as his enemies and tormentors.

"We were treated worse than animals in jail," Nasir told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa. "Even the cats didn't want to eat the fish they gave us." Indeed, the Aceh conflict is a bloody stain on Indonesia. As many as 20,000 people, mostly civilians, died and thousands more were raped or tortured by Indonesian army soldiers. GAM did not behave much better, carrying out executions, attacks on Javanese migrants, and terrorising and extorting money from civilians caught in the middle.

A psychological evaluation in three war-torn districts compared the conflict's intensity to that of Bosnia and Afghanistan and found that 65 percent of civilians ranked high on depression symptoms. Thousands of former guerrilla fighters are being reintegrated into their villages but the unemployment rates hover at around 75 percent, according to aid workers.

Simultaneously, Aceh is recovering from the tsunami, which killed 177,000 people, washed away nearly half of the capital Banda Aceh, and destroyed hundreds of villages. Aceh lies on the northern tip of Sumatra, some 2,000 kilometres northwest of Jakarta, and was the first place to be hit by the earthquake-triggered waves.

In many ways, the peace process, reconstruction and elections are intertwined. The several billion dollars in post-tsunami aid has enabled the peace process to gain better traction than it would have otherwise, and the presence of foreign aid workers has forced both GAM and the Indonesian military to be on their best behaviour.

There are high hopes that Monday's elections will further cement the rebels' reintegration into Acehnese society, which in turn will allow tsunami reconstruction to continue without the threat of violence or resumed warfare. "They are linked - If one fails, the others will be negatively affected," said Mark Knight, who manages a reintegration program in Aceh for the International Organisation for Migration.

The wild card is what happens if GAM-backed candidates don't win the governor's office or most of the 19 district-chief contests. Some analysts are speculating that former Aceh governor Azwar Abubakar, a veteran politician and wealthy businessman, or politician Malik Raden of Golkar, the ruling party in Jakarta, could win the race.

But with the eight gubernatorial candidates each needing at least 25 percent of the vote to win outright, a run-off poll between the top two finishers early next year appears more likely. The absence of campaign violence suggests both sides trust the process thus far and believe the vote will be free and fair.

Ultimately, GAM may rue its internal rifts if a candidate from the old political establishment wins, and the ex-rebels will be forced to look ahead to the next elections in 2009 after they have formed an official political party. "There will be a lot of soul searching going on," said Marcus Mietzner, a senior visiting fellow at The Indonesian Institute, a Jakarta-based think tank.


Related blog entries (category 'Elections') Related blog entries (category 'Elections'):
03 December 2006 · Indonesia eyes path for ex-Aceh rebels to form political party
25 November 2006 · Landmark election campaign begins in Aceh
08 November 2006 · Minister to inspect preparations for Aceh regional chief elections
06 November 2006 · General, rebel among candidates in Aceh
22 August 2006 · Indonesia to hold Aceh elections December 11


Posted in Elections @ 09 December 2006 03:54 CET by Jeroen · 'Blog' RSS feed · permalink






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